What It Means to Need
"There are things you need that I can't give you," my then-boyfriend-now-husband told me when he suggested I see a therapist for the first time in a decade. At first, I was angry. I wanted him to listen to me, to help me through my stress and emotions, not pawn me off on someone else. But, he was right; there were things I needed that he couldn't give me.
I find it difficult, sometimes even impossible, to ask for help. I was raised to be independent and handle things on my own. I watched my parents, both small business owners, doing it all themselves, rarely showing weakness or faults. To ask for help, to assert my needs, felt like failure. To be strong, I believed, was to deal with my shit myself. But, when I was a teenager, I desperately needed help and didn't know how to ask for it.
It started with a feeling of worthlessness that was difficult to put into words, especially as a thirteen-year-old. I didn't believe I deserved food. Basic needs became weakness in my eyes, indulgent, unnecessary. Millions of people around with world were starving, while I was scarfing down ice cream. It felt like an insult to people who were really in need. I cut out snacks and things that didn't feel necessary, things I didn't really need. Then, it became a sort of game against myself, how little I could eat, how little I could need, as if that would prove my worth. It was less than 100 calories a day, then, some days, nothing at all. Every mealtime became a battle with my parents trying to cajole me into eating, and my stalwart refusal. Eventually, they sent me to a teen psych ward in another state. There were things I needed that they couldn't help me with.
Even this week, my therapist mentioned asserting my needs and my immediate reaction was to say "Oh, no no no, I don't need anything, I have so much, I couldn't possibly need more." We used this as a teaching moment, as we often do when I have a gut reaction to something, stepped back and tried to understand it. Why am I so afraid of needing anything, of being needy, of relying on others?
For so many years, I convinced myself that, if someone gives me so much, I can't possibly need more, and to expect or even ask for what I need is to be ungrateful for everything I have. I justify this all the time, to myself, to my therapist, and she always catches me. My mom has given me so much, I often say, she supported me in so many ways, how can I expect more from her? How can I complain or even think about the ways she wasn't there when I needed her? As my therapist says, "Yes, she supported you in some ways, but not always the ways you needed." Growing up, I didn't always have the sounding board or emotional support that was so critical for me, and didn't feel like I could ask for more.
When I had my first serious manic episode in my early twenties, my mom handed me her credit card and said, "You need a spa day." While the serene aura of the spa, with its chilled cucumber water and calming music, did help me destress and care for my body (mania lives in the body, wears down on you, exhausts you), that wasn't what I really needed. I needed someone to ask if I was OK, to listen to my uncontrollable, all-consuming worries, to hold me. For years, I thought how supportive my mom was during that manic episode, how she gave me the gift of self-care. But, I also know now, it wasn't what I really needed (or, not all I needed, anyway). My mom is there for me in the ways that are comfortable to her, by handing me the credit card, even if she can't always meet my emotional needs. I've always tried to convince myself that this is enough, that I can live without the emotional support I really need.
You can both be grateful for what you have and need something else, too. It's OK to have emotional needs and even to assert them (though I still struggle with this). Everybody needs, though we need different things and some may be more basic and dire than others. Yes, people need food and shelter and health care, and so many people don't have these things, that it can seem privileged to say you need a hug, or someone to listen, or some emotional support. Having needs doesn't take away from people in greater need. For some reason, many of us view our emotional needs as too much, unfair to ask of anyone, unimportant. It's not always easy to ask for what you need, but it's so important to tend to your emotional needs, as well as your physical ones. Remember, needing isn't weakness; it's human.